Thursday, January 7, 2010

For Greatest Generation, Rags To Riches; For Boomers, Riches To Rags?

By Manifesto Joe

I suppose one could call it poetic justice. And, keep in mind that I'm dealing in the broadest generalizations. But it looks as though America has seen and is seeing two very different generations, parents and children, facing inverted experiences.

The Greatest Generation (roughly 1901-1924) had hardscrabble beginnings. The oldest of these Americans were in the prime of life when the stock market crashed and the worst economic depression of modern times began. The youngest of them were children. The ones in the middle were about the age when you graduate from high school. Many saw dreams of college, businesses, and the better life those might bring, utterly destroyed.

We, the Baby Boomers, are mostly children of the Greatest Generation, at least one parent or the other. We're defined demographically as 1946-1964; culturally (Strauss & Howe, Generations, 1990) as more like 1943-1960, with the defining feature that we all came of age between 1960 and 1979, a unique, distinctive time.

There couldn't have been two generations in American history with more strikingly different experiences. The Greatest got their collective butt kicked early in life, first with the Great Depression and then World War II. From the latter, some didn't come back. Those who did came out of those experiences a cautious, culturally conservative group. Levittown homes. Eisenhower lawns. 2.3 kids and a dog. Get a job for life. Marry your hometown sweetheart and stay married for life. Church every Sunday. The favored investment: savings bonds (The war's over, dude!)

The Boomers? The contrast was incredible. I'm not going to say "we," because I wasn't entirely typical of my generation. But I went to college with enough people who were that I recognize the type.

They grew up during the cushiest times ever. The period of 1945-1973 is generally seen by economists as the time of ultimate American hegenomy. They were shielded from the harsher realities by their parents, who had definitely not been spared such experiences.

Their generation's war was Vietnam, a morally ambiguous, nasty quagmire that young men generally went out of their way to avoid. Contrast that with "The Good War," the one almost everyone agreed had to be fought and won, unconditionally.

Culture went very far left during the Boomer time. Have casual sex with different partners. Forget what your mama said, smoke that funny-smelling cigarette. Question authority. In fact, defy it. Listen to harsh music, to hell with that sweet, syrupy old stuff of your parents'. College is such a given, hell, why not just drop out and go back later, any old time you decide you're ready? We're all going to get old and die someday. So, let's get high, and let's get laid!

It's not that all of the above is entirely wrong -- but with 20/20 hindsight, it's just a little naive. People have to work, grow food and such. To do that, they have to be sober at least some of the time. Women occasionally get knocked up from sex, and it's a good idea for the kid to know, who's your daddy? Authority figures are indeed usually full of shit, but try it on yourself. You may sense fecal matter coming out of your own mouth at some point.

Now, after The Great Recession, and the semi-collapse of American prosperity, the Boomers face interesting poetic justice.

The Greatest came of age with poverty. As a generation, they seemed to turn it into a character-building passage. The Boomers, most of whom never tasted much if any poverty in youth, are now confronted with it.

One source estimates that since The Great Recession began, unemployment for 55-and-older workers has jumped 143 percent. This seems strange, considering that "futurist" projections back in that innocent time we now call the Nineties said that older workers were going to be needed more than ever by now.

The "futurists" were full of it about a lot of things. I recall their projections from even earlier. We were supposed to be working 25-hour weeks by now, and robots were supposed to be taking up more than enough of the slack. So it shouldn't surprise us that they were oh-so-wrong yet again.

A stereotypical lefty blogger post about this would be to decry the obvious discrimination against older workers; and, I ain't a fella to let you down. (Henry Fonda as Tom Joad will come back from the dead to get me for that.) Here's a petition you can sign to start fighting back against the misery we Boomers suddenly face.

But, back to the rest of the post: I try to avoid the stereotypical in this blog, so humor me. Perhaps there's something karmic in all this. We Boomers caused our parents a huge amount of grief, so maybe we're facing just desserts.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.


Jack Jodell said...

Manifesto Joe,
I thank you for this very insightful, sobering, and, I think, accurate overall portrayal of the two different groups. It is a brilliant piece of food for thought for all who want to be honest about how things have turned out today.

SJ said...

@Manifesto Joe, Jack
I have to disagree, as a member of so-called "Generation X," -that lamentable monicker coined by Douglas Copeland (named after Billy Idol's first band in England) that the boomer's are experiencing a Karmic backlash, and especially that they could deserve it somehow. I know it may be easy to look at your fellows and just see the failures and abuses that have been wrought, but as someone raised by a boomer, taught by scores of boomers in all of my academic life, and who currently works for boomers as my employers let just remind you of a few things you may have forgotten about your illustrious generation, despite the fact they were born in "cushy" conditions.

The boomers did away with segregation. The Boomers passed civil rights legislation. The boomers have marched and taken to the streets to make Presidents listen. The boomers turned around on the AIDS crisis in America going from no funding at home, to billions in funding around the world for treatment and prevention in a matter of about 15 years, granted my generation was a big part of the street element in that effort, but we couldn't have even done it with out you and your example to lead us.

I wouldn't take anything away from the "greatest generation," but the boomers did all right. Vietnam was a quagmire, and they questioned it from the start. That the boomers eventually had their own cadres of arch-criminals, warmongers and corrupt thieves just means they were a generation like any other.

I say take a bow.

Manifesto Joe said...

SJ, good points as always:

But one thing that strikes me is the track record of the group in between, born roughly 1925-1942, once popularly known as The Silent Generation.

This was a term coined by Time magazine, I think, to describe highly conforming types who came of age just after WWII. In 1953, the year I think it was that Time did that piece, it seemed an apt description.

But, let's review who was born during that time frame:

Martin Luther King Jr. 1929
Jesse Jackson 1941
Muhammad Ali 1942
Medgar Evers 1925
Caesar Chavez 1927

That's only a few names, but it's a pretty good civil rights grouping, don't you think? They actually comprised most of the "foot soldiers" of that movement, the ones who learned nonviolent tactics and took truncheons up side the head -- when they were lucky.

Musicians who changed music, and even the world:

Bob Dylan 1941
Paul Simon 1942
Grace Slick 1939
Jerry Garcia 1942
Buddy Holly 1936
Joan Baez 1941
Frank Zappa 1940
Marvin Gaye 1939
Jimi Hendrix 1942

General counterculture figures:

Ken Kesey 1935
Dennis Hopper 1936
Peter Fonda 1939
Jane Fonda 1937
Jack Nicholson 1937
James Dean 1931
Neal Cassady 1926
Allen Ginsberg 1926

Technically, there's not a Boomer among them. Anyway, the "Silents" later turned out to have a voice that echoed across generations past and future. Just goes to show, you never can tell.

Anonymous said...

"They grew up during the cushiest times ever."

Well, depends on who you were. If you were white and middle-class, I'd agree. But if you were black and growing up in, say, Watts, I don't think times were too cushy.

Manifesto Joe said...

As I said in my lead, I was dealing in the broadest generalizations. Personally, I grew up working-class Anglo in the brush country of South Texas. We weren't well off, and there were people worse off -- and I knew them. Mostly, they were people whose skin was brown, and often whose first language wasn't English. But I was referring generally to majority white people in "heartland" America. The Boomers who grew up "there" mostly couldn't conceive of what this country was like in 1932, nor would they have expected it to turn into what it is now.

Manifesto Joe said...

Actually, that reminiscence just made me think of something that illustrates the culture gap between people like me and the rest of America.

That logo that use use for Mozilla Firefox -- my wife assures me that it's a fiery red fox.

It looks to me like the wild hogs that, in South Texas, we called javelinas. It don't look like no fox I ever seen. Looks like a wild pig, vato!

SJ said...

@Manifesto Joe,
no one could argue with that roll call on civil rights, but I would suggest that the rank and file people in those marches (the photos and film footage I grew up watching) were younger and were Boomers by and large, my mother's generation and yours. The young boomers are the overwhelming anonymous population in those photographs of the period and we'll never know their names, there were too many of them. At the marches, that earlier (born pre 1946) generation represents a very obstinate staus quo at the time, their great contributions not withstanding.

I have a list of names of my own but for me, the counter culture I was part of was American Hardcore punk. This was where the Left and the youth came together during my own adolescence, the 1980s. They were all without exception baby boomers and these singer songwriters were the only recourse for people like me who weren't buying into Reagan-era bullshit:

As best as I can remember on the spot they were:

Jello Biaffra -the Dead Kennedys
Vic Bondi -State of Alert, Articles of Faith
Keith Morris -The Circle Jerks
Mike Dean -Corrosion of Conformity
Lee Ving -FEAR
Henry Rollins -Black Flag
Ian MacKaye Minor -Threat, Fugazi
Jack Grisham -True Sound of Liberty
D. Boon -The MinuteMen
Dave Dictor -MDC
Mike Watt -The Minutemen, Firehouse

The boomers may not have given us a Jimi Hendrix or a Bob Dylan, but they were sophisticated enough to laud them as their heroes whereas Hendrix and Dylan's contemporaries largely dismissed them. The baby boom did give us Stevie Wonder and Michael Stipe (I don't like much mainstream music so I'm not the best one to point out the best in this group.)

also, I should point out:
Michael Moore
Bill Maher
Jon stewart
-all of them boomers -as well as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Paul Allen.


Manifesto Joe said...

Again, I was indulging in broad generalizations, and one goes out on a limb anytime one does that.

The "Greatest" were, by and large, a square group. But among them were (or are) Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Terry Southern (a second or third cousin of my wife's, BTW), Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, John Henry Faulk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others. Many were the foot soldiers of the Old Left, and became inspirations for the New, never selling out.

There's some risk involved anytime one generalizes about an entire generation. It pleasantly surprises me that you hold "us" in high esteem. The Boomers started out as the most conspicuously rebellious group. Then, when confronted with the realities of disownment, living in rural chicken shacks or urban cold-water tenaments, eating cheap stew, etc., many went crawling back home. It seems like those who rebelled during the '80s would see "us" as largely a bunch of chickenshits who left you out on a lurch.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi SJ, nice comment and observation on punk.
During the horrors of the early 80s, it was U.S. and British progressive music that helped keep me sane.
I've been going back and listening to the Dead Kennedys again and I find Biafra's music still has extraordinary power.
Few other musicians have ever been able to articulate such potent rage against the evils of corrupt government and corporate capitalism.
As far as social protest music, I would rank it up there with anything recorded in the 1960s (or any other era).
Other music from the early 1980s that I will always cherish include the Gang of Four and the Clash.
Where is today's Joe Strummer? I listen to the "London Calling" album and it makes me want to cry when I think of how far downhill music has come since then.

"When cowboy Ronnie comes to town,
Forks out his tongue at human rights

Sit down, enjoy our ethnic meal,
Dine on some charbroiled nuns

Try a medal on,
Smile at the mirror as the cameras click
and make Big Business happy."

--"Bleed for Me," by the Dead Kennedys, 1982.

Anonymous said...

There's a movement to radically change California government, by getting rid of career politicians and chopping their salaries in half. A group known as Citizens for California Reform wants to make the California legislature a part time time job, just like it was until 1966.